Entering Saturday’s match against LAFC, the situation for Austin FC has been far from peachy.
Although the overall results hadn’t been vastly different from last season in league play (after the first five matches in 2022, Los Verdes had earned 8 points, after five matches this season they’ve earned 7), the performance on the field has been a far cry from what it was last year (last season’s goal differential at this stage was +8, entering Saturday’s match Austin was -1).
On the other hand, things have been looking good for LAFC: they’re currently second in the Western Conference, the Black and Gold is in a good position to advance to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League after smashing Vancouver 3-0 in Canada, and they’re once again the odds-on favorite to win the MLS Cup this season.
Given the fact that the teams have been trending in opposite directions, the expectations for Austin FC didn’t involve coming home with a point, much less three. Saturday night’s 3-0 loss to LAFC, confirmed that sentiment.
Here are five big takeaways from the rematch of last year’s Western Conference Final:
We saw the Austin FC that we know and love…for a half hour anyway
The performance on the field this season has largely felt like watching a team without an identity; for most of the first half, this looked like last season’s Austin FC. In fact, you could argue that the Verde & Black were the better side for the first thirty minutes of the match. Maybe this was largely due in part to Maxi Urruti starting up top in place of Gyasi Zardes, and Diego Fagundez starting again, or even the boys rocking the Sentimiento shirt, but this team felt familiar, like it was clicking again.
In his postgame press conference Coach Josh Wolff said as much: “The first half was a strong first half, I think the ability to utilize the ball, to move the opponent, to break pressure was extremely good. I didn’t think they had many answers for it…large portions of the performance, of this match, I felt good about.”
The midfield was dominant, the passing was crisp, and Sebastian Driussi had a run that showed us all why he’s one of the best players in Major League Soccer. Maybe there was a little bit of bad luck with Žan Kolmanič’s laser not finding the net, and the deflection that fell to Denis Bouanga. But the Verde & Black were really fun to watch again, even if it wasn’t for the entire match.
Bouanga vs. Driussi. Advantage: Bouanga
It’s still (very) early in the season, but Denis Bouanga showed why he’s the early frontrunner for the Landon Donovan MVP trophy on Saturday night. That’s not a knock on Sebastian Driussi, who is still Austin’s best and most important player by any measure, but Bouanga was just that much better.
Ok, so I wrote the previous paragraph at halftime.
That was before Bouanga’s insane volley in the 57’. To make it 2-0, LAFC.
That was before Bouanga’s insane volley in the 68’. To make it 3-0, LAFC.
Stop the count. Major League Soccer has its MVP.
Many times, football just comes down to which team’s best players make the big plays. And even without the goals, it was obvious that Bouanga was the best man on the pitch on Saturday. He was stronger, faster, and quicker than everyone else.
In the 67th minute, he easily slipped by Nick Lima en route to Austin’s end of the pitch; Lima had no choice but to grab him and pick up the yellow card. The “what else am I supposed to do?” look on Lima’s face said it all.
I didn’t think we’d go to stadium-formerly-known-as-The Banc and lose 5-0, but if Bouanga wasn’t subbed off right after hitting us with a hat trick, that may have indeed happened.
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Emiliano Rigoni is still not over the hump
To be clear, Rigoni didn’t have a terrible game. But he didn’t have a really good game either, which has become a real issue after his 13th match with Austin FC.
There were moments in the match when you could see his technical ability come through: in the first half he breezed by Georgio Chiellini on the wing, unfortunately Urruti did not make the run to find Rigoni’s cross. Later in the first half, he held up the ball really well (take notes, Gyasi Zardes) to set up a shot on goal for Urruti.
Unfortunately, his play just hasn’t led to anything substantial for Austin FC…yet. I firmly believe that a goal or assist in league play will help get him over that hump. Once he gets a goal contribution, I think he’ll live up to his billing.
The issue, however, is that the team can’t wait forever. You can see glimpses of his talent, but he’s a Designated Player, and he’s simply not carrying his weight the same way that Driussi or Alex Ring have for Austin FC, both this season and in the past.
The goal drought is real
As I said earlier, you could argue that the first half was Austin’s best half of the season, even after going down a goal (it may feel like ages ago, but a one-goal deficit for this team last season was no big deal).
The problem, however, is that Los Verdes are still not creating great chances, and still aren’t scoring many goals.
“We tried to talk candidly about what the result looks like,“ said Wolff. “I think there’s disappointment in losing. We know its going to be a challenge coming here, I always want us to score goals, I want us to show that ability, regardless if we’re home or away. From that standpoint I think it’s disappointing, we created some decent chances, I wouldn’t say we created enough real good chances.”
As thin as Austin FC are in defense, I would argue that the issue is actually on the offensive side of the ball. At this same juncture last season, Austin had already scored 14 goals. After six matches, they’ve only managed 6 goals.
The sky is not falling. I repeat, the sky is not falling
Look, it’s tough to erase not going through against Violette AC in the Champions League. And let’s be clear, that was a major disappointment.
But, Austin isn’t too far off where they were last year in league play, at least when it comes to the results. They’re currently sitting at 7 points; at this time last season Austin was at 11 points.
Check back with me in a month, but there is still a very realistic path to success this season.
Three of the next four matches are against teams currently below Austin in the table, with two of those coming at home, and one of the away matches against LA Galaxy, who have yet to win a game this season.
If Austin can match the same energy and confidence they showed today, they could easily pick up some valuable points. Austin FC just needs some momentum. And just like their Argentinian right winger, they just need to get over the hump.
Cover photo courtesy Apple TV